George H.W. Bush was the last president to distinguish between two different tasks: campaigning and governing. At his 1988 post-election news conference, Bush said, “The American people are wonderful when it comes to understanding when a campaign ends and the work of business begins.” As the then-29-year-old opposition research counsel to the Bush ’88 campaign, I was chagrined to see the president-elect draw that line so quickly.
Looking back, there is much to commend in the elder Bush’s approach. With the passing of time, the distinction between campaigning and governing has been lost. Subsequent elections have each felt like a prelude to a permanent campaign. The first Bush presidency is a reminder that country can come before party, partisanship is not insurmountable, and that there are more important things.
To be clear, the 1988 campaign was long, hard-fought, and not necessarily ennobling. But winning definitely beat losing. George Bush was disciplined. He wanted the prize and stuck to the script. In the midst of the campaign, on Jan. 25, 1988, to the cheers of the party faithful, then–vice president Bush upbraided Dan Rather on national television. That moment still makes for compelling television and political drama.
During the Republican primary debates Mr. Bush twitted former Delaware governor Pete du Pont by calling him “Pierre.” At the Republican Convention, the vice president issued his “read my lips” pledge on taxes. On the stump, the candidate would chow down on pork rinds. As if.
Mr. Bush skewered his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. In speeches and ads, the Bush campaign unleashed a barrage of attacks which Dukakis failed to answer. The opposition research shop gleefully pounded away at Dukakis on crime and credibility. Candidate Bush understood that getting to the White House required wooing a constituency larger than the population of the Houstonian Hotel, which he used as his Texas residence while in office, or of Greenwich, Connecticut, where he was raised.
However, governing meant something far more important to George Bush than campaigning. Being the president was different from being a nominee.
It meant reaching agreements with political foes for the sake of the national good. It meant being resolute in war, without letting passions eclipse judgment. It meant acting with a light touch toward a former adversary, projecting dignity at events of state, and recognizing that life, people, and things were more fragile than they necessarily appeared. Ultimately, it meant being a grown-up. President Bush did all of those things.
In office, Mr. Bush confronted the savings and loan crisis, a budget battle, and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. In each case, he worked with the Democrat-controlled Congress to forge compromises. And the president fell on his sword over taxes, thereby collapsing his own Republican base, opening the way to a primary challenge, and paving the road to defeat. In 1992, Mr. Bush came up short against Bill Clinton, the Arkansas governor, who saw the value in closely linking campaigning to governing, and who would become a friend to both Bush 41 and 43.
Yes, George Bush hated to lose. But he had larger objectives in sight, and he managed those objectives well. As commander in chief, President Bush assembled a meaningful coalition against Saddam Hussein — a real alliance that signaled to one and all that the world was united against Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait. Even China, Russia, Egypt, and Syria were at least nominally on board with the US.
Moreover, a combat veteran himself — he volunteered to be a Navy pilot at age 18 and flew 58 missions — Mr. Bush grasped when war began and what it would mean. He understood how and where to end it; he did not go wobbly, but nor was he reckless. As a younger man, Lt. Bush had witnessed both victory and death, having been shot down flying over the Pacific. The president knew just what regime change in Iraq would bring, and stopped well short of Baghdad and “liberation.”
President Bush did not need a self-validating photo op to broadcast what he had achieved. “Mission Accomplished” was not part of Bush 41’s lexicon. Its significance was readily understood without being hyped. Resolution, however imperfect, was plenty for George H.W. Bush. He famously said “no gloating” over the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The president showed grace without displaying weakness. As the Soviet Union was coming apart, he extended a hand to Mikhail Gorbachev at the Malta Summit and again at a speech before the Supreme Soviet. Mr. Bush’s deft touch led to the signing of the START Treaty and hastened German reunification.
These attainments truly merited a Nobel Peace Prize, which this president unfortunately did not receive. Unlike all who followed after him, President Bush comprehended America’s interests and might, as well as their limits.
Fittingly, George Bush saw New York Yankees great Lou Gehrig as a role model. On the 50th anniversary of Gehrig’s retirement, President Bush saluted baseball’s Iron Horse and Columbia alum in a pre-game video. Mr. Bush played first base for Yale, and was better known for his glove than for his bat. Even so, Mr. Bush eventually hit .280, and went to college baseball’s World Series.
Politics and perhaps baseball have changed. George Bush was the last president to fight in World War II, the last veteran in the White House, and the last to have real ties to the Cold War’s Wise Men. Practically speaking, his presidency marked a generational and cultural turning point. Those who have come after him were characterized by what they did during the Vietnam War or how they were shaped by the 1960s.
The Bush White House was also the last organically bipartisan administration. President Bush was friends with Democrats, like Sen. Daniel Moynihan and Reps. Lud Ashley of Ohio and Sonny Montgomery of Mississippi. Like Mr. Bush, each had worn a uniform, and served in America’s armed forces. Rep. Ashley even helped bury Robin Bush, the Bushes’ second child, after she died of pediatric leukemia at the age of 4. Now, they are all gone.
Today, we are separated by a common language and Constitution. The chasm between our citizenry grows ever greater. It feels as if we are amid a never-ending semi-civil civil war, with the latest presidential inauguration just another scrum in a series of endless partisan battles.
The late president possessed the rare quality of being able to fuse modesty with drive. In the end, it wasn’t always about him. His life wasn’t torn from the tabloids.
Although a former chair of the Republican National Committee, George H.W. Bush believed that ultimately he should be answerable to the nation. Mr. Bush truly put America first.
Lloyd Green worked for George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign and in his Department of Justice. He is now a lawyer in New York City.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.